Originally published in Foreign Policy Association Blogs
by Reza Akhlaghi
Disappointment over the Islamic Republic’s intransigence in its nuclear policy has given further credence to Western suspicions that Iran may be buying time to develop a nuclear military capability to blackmail regional states of the Persian Gulf and/or Israel. But at present, Iran’s deeply paranoid and insecure leadership is contemplating its other nuclear option: this time the domestic one.
In the post-election turmoil Ahmadinejad and his security apparatus executed on a well-planned strategy of fear mongering to discourage protestors from continuing their anti-government demonstrations and quell the rising tide of discontent. At the core of this campaign of terror was the use of brute force in a very surgical and tactical way aimed at instilling fear into the minds of protesters. The use of sharp shooters was one leg of this strategy, which manifested itself in the brazen killing of Neda Agha Soltan, the 26-year-old young woman shot by a sharp shooter’s bullet. Other protesters were killed in the same way. The message was intentionally clear: “a bullet could find you anywhere and at any moment, so take to the streets at your own peril”.
Another pillar in this campaign of fear by Ahmadinejad and Co. was the sexual violation of protesters at numerous prisons throughout the country, only a portion of which have so far been publicized, chiefly among them the rapes that took place in the notorious Kahrizak prison on the outskirts of Tehran. In a sense, the leadership gave a carte blanche to its security forces for unbridled use of violence against defenseless detainees.
To the regime’s and indeed much of the world’s astonishment, the brutal terror campaign has not shown any degree of effectiveness. On the contrary, the above measures appear to have made protesters more resolute in making their demands heard. In effect, the protesters have managed to reduce the regime’s sense of confidence and Islamic grandeur to a shadow of its former self.
Here the regime is left with a last crucial tool sitting at its disposal: the internal nuclear option; that is the launch of a blood bath in the streets of capital and other major metropolitans. In this option, theoretically, the leadership would have to kill hundreds; perhaps thousands of protesters to ensure its survival for at least a few months, if not a few more years. Will this option work? It remains to be seen, but the grounds seem to be gradually set for exercising this option.
Mr. Mehdi Karroubi, one of the key opposition figures in Iran’s post-election turmoil known for his outspoken speeches, seems to have thrust the internal crisis in Iran into a whole new phase. On Monday, January 25, Karroubi recognized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran though he continued to insist on his long-held assertions that there had been widespread vote rigging in the June presidential elections. This surprise recognition is part of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations between the leadership and key opposition figures, which could entail a quid-pro-quo by the leadership chiefly the removal of Ahmadinejad from power through impeachment at Majles, the Iranian parliament.
The regime is also banking on recent displays of support for the Green Movement from outside of Iran by exiled figures. Most recently, on a talk show hosted by the BBC Persian service, Akbar Ganji, a well-known opposition activist and journalist living in the U.S., made remarks about Shiite branch of Islam and the prophet that were deemed blasphemous by the leadership in Tehran. Since then the leadership in Tehran has been trying to discredit the opposition and present it as anti-Islamic with strong support from arch enemies; Israel and the U.S. With this scenario in mind, Iran’s security apparatus is being prepared for the upcoming demonstrations in mid-February that will commemorate the anniversary of the Islamic revolution. The goal is to paint protesters as mohareb, that is anti-Islamic and therefore, enemies of god; an accusation that could carry death penalty. Should the upcoming protests become widespread and threatening to the regime’s survival, the internal nuclear option could very well be exercised.
The implications of this option, should it be exercised, range from short term stability for the regime to full-blown explosion of the Iranian society, leading to the regime’s speedy collapse. As to its international implications, they could be wide-ranging including severing of ties with Iran by the E.U.; a full-fledged recognition of the Green Movement by the Obama administration; as well as a sudden change of heart by Beijing and Moscow by distancing themselves from the leadership in Tehran to cut their strategic losses and further embarrassment on the international stage. The international outcry would simply be multi-dimensional.
For the custodians of Iran’s theocracy, who for three decades, have demonstrated utter contempt for human dignity, the internal nuclear option is a high-risk game that could very well give them a much-needed lease on life. But it also remains to be seen how realization of this scenario will negatively or positively impact the democratic aspirations of Iranians.